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The Durt Family on a hillsideThe Durt Family on a hillside

Off the Grid

The Durt Family: Facing Our Parenting Fears

In the second installment of Off the Grid, Elliot Durt of The Durt Family reflects on facing his fears while raising a family in the wild and the lessons he's learned from watching his daughter, Uma, navigate a whole new world.
Written By
Elliot Durt

We are officially one month into our wandering/wondering retreat, and we are still high up in the mountains. Higher up, actually. The only moments we spend indoors are for brief visits in gas stations and grocery stores, which serve as great opportunities to use an actual toilet. The other day, while washing my hands, I took a long gaze into the mirror; it was odd to see my reflection standing there, almost as if it was a mirage. In some ways, being up in these mountains starts to make you feel less real, as if you’re beginning to disappear. Maybe parts of me are.

My old self would recoil watching as I use puddle water to tame my bed head. This is NOT the high-end deep conditioner I instructed my clients to use for the last ten years as a hairdresser. Or as we meticulously monitor our budget, I wave longingly at the health food store on our way to Walmart, a place I refused to enter for the last five years when I vowed to support ethical, sustainable, organic, fair trade, and local instead of fueling corporate greed (values which I still hold dear and intend to return to!). But alas, we are not gainfully employed, so I now find myself coming up with creative ways to make ramen noodle packets healthy.

And as some of my identities vanish, I have found something else arises, something I’ve conveniently and cleverly dodged in my old life: my fears. Some seem silly, like my crippling fear of the dark. When we lived in our home, my imagination would convince me there were killers hiding in the shower during my middle-of-the-night bathroom breaks, but now, I force myself to go outside the tent, successfully facing all of the scary monsters that lurk there. Oh yeah, and all those bears.  Some are more valid, like my parental fears, wondering if I am navigating any of this correctly: does my child need more social interaction? Am I making the right decisions for my family? Will Uma be well-adjusted to live in society? Do I even want her to be? Then, of course, there’s the social fears, those concerns that linger with most civilized humans. As I separate from the herd of humanity, how will I be understood? As I lose connection, how will I be heard? Will I remain relevant? And most dauntingly, if it’s not on my Instagram story, did it even happen?! The death of ego is a hard fear to take head-on, but perhaps my biggest fear of all, which I presume is the biggest fear for all humans, and certainly parents, is actual death.

A few days ago, we hiked several miles down a mountain until the trail became only large flat boulders against the edge of a ravine. It didn’t seem too intimidating. That is, until Matthew slipped off the side, our daughter on his back, and I heard his ankle pop on the way down. After a few minutes on the ground, he determined that he could walk on it, mainly because there was no other option. Luckily, our daughter made it through the tumble without a scratch, but for Matthew, the path ahead looked too formidable to continue forward. So, we turned back. We returned the way we came. I watched Matthew limp several miles back out of the valley, clearly downplaying the severity of his injury. When we arrived at the car and drove back to our tent, I hid under the blankets and on top of our deflated air mattress. As rain dripped through the roof, I told Matthew, “I want to go home.” He replied, “Where even is home?”

The Durt family standing by a tent, Elliot Durt kneeling next to daughter UmaThe Durt family standing by a tent, Elliot Durt kneeling next to daughter Uma

In retrospect, I don’t think I even meant what I said, and I certainly know I didn’t know the answer to his question. I do know we no longer fit into the life we left. I know that just in this short amount of time, too much has already changed. I know home is no longer a physical place, but something that resides within us and somewhere in the future. I know the plea to go home came from a place that is still very wounded and tender, a place that anyone who knows grief can identify.

Watching Matthew limp out of that valley pulled memories from a vault I don’t like to access and fears I’ve refused to address. One in which, my mother, undergoing chemotherapy for the cancer that would take her life, had her hand stop working at a restaurant during a family lunch. She could hide most of the pain she had been moving through for the last several months, but she couldn’t hide this. I watched her put her fork down and put her hands in her lap. I saw her tears of frustration swell in her eyes. She knew where this was going. I looked away. I was young. Death felt distant. Pain and misery and sorrow weren’t things that existed in my life. They weren’t things I was ready for. Are we ever? What was I going to say, anyway? That everything “was going to be okay”? Seeing someone you love in pain is vulnerable and uncomfortable and makes you want to run away. But where do you run?

When Matthew fell, we tried to downplay the situation for Uma, assuming she would forget the whole thing and move on. However, she was paying closer attention than we realized: now, every time we go on a walk, we have to reenact a scene in which one of us gets hurt, and she kisses our injury away. It made me realize: maybe there is something cathartic and completely necessary about reliving and re-enacting painful moments in order to process them. And then this made me wonder: if I don’t face these painful moments, if I don’t move through them, how will I ever be able to show up fully in my own life? Unprocessed fears only create restraints, and part of why I am out here is to learn to show up more fully in all of my relationships: with the world, with my life, but most importantly, with my husband and my daughter.

Matthew Durt holding daughter Uma, the Durt Family standing in front of a lakeMatthew Durt holding daughter Uma, the Durt Family standing in front of a lake

As I uncomfortably yet curiously sat with these thoughts, there finally came a day when the rain calmed down and the sun peeked out. Everything began to shift again. Old beliefs about who I am, about what life is supposed to look like, about what is possible. “Is this what freedom feels like?” I asked myself. This is certainly what I have been seeking, but I guess I forgot to anticipate how much it would hurt to get there.  Out here we are free. But with that comes facing your life and each other and your fears in new ways. I find myself pushed outside my comfort zone all the time, my grip loosening each day, my false sense of control dissipating without my consent. It’s a feeling that we are all too familiar with and were forced to face when the world was turned upside down by the pandemic, when we had to make quick decisions we never anticipated or could never have imagined needing to make.

The Durt Family sitting next to a tentThe Durt Family sitting next to a tent

Matthew is healing well by the way. His ankle, anyway. He’s still a little miffed about my request to go home. But we made a pact that day, one where we show up fully for each other through it all, where we name our fears and face them until new beautiful things are ready to grow from them. We made a pact where we said we only go forward and never backward from here on out.

And beyond these shadows, a girl named Uma is growing as well. Or maybe shapeshifting is a better term to describe her transfiguration. The other day I watched as she dipped her hair into a puddle and allowed the water to drip down over her smiling face. As I unlearn, she learns, and as I break free, she becomes. Although she still prefers to be held by her Dada or Papa while exploring new groves and forests and ravines, she’s becoming more and more comfortable in these wild places. She kneels before ant hills, greeting the little guys with incredible enthusiasm, curiosity, and compassion. She collects an elaborate selection of rocks and pine cones, all conveniently stored in our car cup holders or the inside of our pillows. She emulates all of the big scary monsters that lurk in the dark, chasing us with her adorably unintimidating “roars!” She re-enacts moments of pain and fear as if it is all a game: as a way to heal, as a way to move past them, always teaching Matthew and I to constantly re-imagine how we can choose to show up with what scares us. And when we stop to catch our breath in this thin high elevation air, we can always count on her finger pointing onward, always forward, and her little voice saying “this way!”